Two years in, Apple TV+ has proven it is no flash in the pan

Apple TV+ Apple TV interface
Apple TV+ Apple TV interface (Image credit: Joseph Keller / iMore)

Some viewed Apple getting into original programming as a misstep for the company, a fanciful distraction outside of its core competencies. It was theorized that pursuing original content could hamper the development of its hardware offerings while the company spent time, money, and effort on a market that it would never be able to dominate.

Following original TV efforts like the abject failure that was Planet of the Apps and the viral-success-turned-damp-squib of Carpool Karaoke, it's hardly surprising that a streaming service full of Apple originals was viewed with skepticism.

Though former Sony execs Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Ambur, who were responsible for ushering in hit shows like Breaking Bad, Justified, and The Crown, were brought in to lead worldwide video programming, many still questioned how Apple's streaming ambitions would play out. Two years into Apple TV+'s existence, it's a great time to take a look back at the service's progress so far.

Apple TV Plus by the numbers

Tim Cook on stage presenting Apple TV+

Tim Cook on stage presenting Apple TV+ (Image credit: Apple)

On its quarterly earnings call last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated that Apple TV+ "has already proved itself to fans around the world" in its first two years, but that's a pretty vague statement presumably backed up by some unrevealed data. Without official subscriber numbers, it's hard to gauge how many people are paying subscribers, how many are making use of a free trial, and how much churn the service has.

Instead, much of what we can glean about Apple TV+'s user base comes from third parties. A recent report from The Information suggests that Apple TV+'s subscriber numbers hover around 40M worldwide, with roughly half of those being paid users. Research firm Parrot Analytics suggests that Apple TV+'s share of the on-demand streaming market rose in 2021 to 5.4%, up from 3.5% a year earlier, making it the fifth-largest distributor of digital original series in the world.

While that sounds impressive, Apple TV+ is no Netflix which has over 200 million subscribers, and it still lags way behind Disney+, which has amassed over 100 million subscribers since its launch in 2019. That being said, Netflix had the advantage of being early to a nascent streaming market, and Disney+ launched with its huge back catalog of exclusive content, so it's a tough comparison.

Apple Tv 4k Review

Apple Tv 4k Review (Image credit: Stephen Warwick / iMore)

Apple is also offering Apple TV+ as a part of its Apple One bundle, which makes it hard, without Apple telling us, to figure out exact subscriber data. Similar to Amazon Prime throwing in Prime Video, Apple's bundle is likely inflating Apple TV+'s subscriber count without speaking much to actual engagement with the streaming service itself.

Apple TV+ being part of a larger service offering surely suits Apple. Unlike Netflix and Disney, Apple's streaming service doesn't represent a large portion of its overall business, making the exact subscriber numbers less important. For Apple, offering Apple TV+ as a part of Apple One serves to keep Apple users more closely tied to its hardware devices, like the iPhone or Apple TV. That's where the company makes the bulk of its profit. Any additional subscribers picked up thanks to Apple TV+ being made available on all other platforms are a bonus that further props up the company's growing services revenues.

Critics have had their say

So, without user data, how do we judge the success of Apple TV+? The obvious alternative metric is critical acclaim, and that's an area in which Apple TV+ has really started to pick up.

Apple Original films, documentaries, and series have won 155 awards and picked up 541 nominations. That means Apple TV+ has "premiered more original hits and received more award recognitions faster than any other streaming service in its debut," according to the company.

The standout success for Apple TV+ has, of course, been Ted Lasso. It has picked up major prizes, including Golden Globe, Emmy, Critics Choice, Peabody, and Television Critics Association awards. According to Variety, the show put Apple TV+ into the top five in Nielsen's streaming ratings for the first time last month with Ted Lasso's second season also causing upticks in viewership for other Apple Originals.

iPad Pro 2021 with Ted Lasso

iPad Pro 2021 with Ted Lasso (Image credit: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore)

Though its success was surprising, the heartwarming comedy series fit perfectly with the zeitgeist of 2020 and gave viewers looking for optimism, something to enjoy during a difficult time for the world. Importantly for Apple, Ted Lasso also got people talking about Apple TV+ with word-of-mouth marketing being the main driver of its success.

Beyond the mustachioed soccer coach, Apple has picked up several awards and nominations for other properties like Dickinson, Servant, Boys State, For All Mankind, and The Morning Show.

Apple has also done particularly well in the documentary space, particularly when it comes to music (something that is within Apple's core interests) with documentaries focusing on The Beastie Boys, Bruce Springsteen, and Billie Eilish all connecting well with audiences.

Despite rumors of Apple neutering content for its service swirling before its launch, creators haven't had to swerve hard topics, and shows have been able to explore adult themes. Apple has also been able to attract some of the biggest names in TV and film to produce content for Apple TV+ with more set to join its who's who of Hollywood A-listers in the coming months.

What's next for Apple TV Plus?

The Tragedy Of Macbeth Art

The Tragedy Of Macbeth Art (Image credit: Apple)

Year three of Apple TV+ is going to bring more content, a boat-load of it, judging by the list of confirmed and rumored shows and movies in production for the service. Apple TV+ launched with just a handful of shows and movies, so it's no surprise that Apple is continuing to pump money into the service in order to fill out its catalog at this stage in its development.

Apple promotes Apple TV+ as the first "all-original" streaming service, which I previously argued is the reason it is able to produce better content consistently. It's unlikely, then, that we'll see the company purchase another media entity in order to acquire a back catalog as it instead focuses on producing more originals.

Year three of Apple TV+ is going to bring more content — a boat-load of it.

Though new originals are coming, it will be just as interesting to see if Apple will be able to kill off golden goose shows like Ted Lasso. The show was written for three seasons, but showrunner Bill Lawrence wouldn't rule out a fourth when asked recently. Less successful titles like Little Voice and Mr. Corman have already been axed, but will Apple be able to say no to more of a good thing? We're yet to find that out.

There's no doubt Apple is targeting an Academy Award win as its next major milestone when it comes to movies. Upcoming movies like the Denzel Washington-starring The Tragedy of Macbeth and Martin Scorsese-directed Killers of the Flower Moon seem most likely to compete for an Oscar soonest.

Sports is perhaps the missing piece for Apple TV+ and something with real mainstream appeal. Apple is rumored to be the NFL's preferred choice for its Sunday Ticket package, which would certainly diversify Apple's offering while simultaneously complicating things globally for the service.

It has been a tumultuous first two years for Apple TV+, a service that launched from a standing start and straddled a global pandemic during its short existence. But with numbers growing, awards mounting, and the financial backing of a tech giant, surely the skepticism around Apple TV+ is long gone.

Adam Oram

Adam Oram is a Senior Writer at iMore. He studied Media at Newcastle University and has been writing about technology since 2013. He previously worked as an Apple Genius and as a Deals Editor at Thrifter. His spare time is spent watching football (both kinds), playing Pokémon games, and eating vegan food. Follow him on Twitter at @adamoram.